Mark 7 Commentary

v.1-5

Another fact finding delegation was sent by the Pharisees in Jerusalem to observe Jesus, and to their surprise they discover that Jesus’ disciples did not observe the ceremonial tradition of washing one’s hands before eating a meal. To the Pharisaic and Scribal Jew, it was ritual, ceremonial, and regulations like washing of the hands which they considered to be essence of the service of God.  Ethical religion was buried under a mass of taboos and rules.[1] William Barclay notes that his ceremony is arduous and failure to perform this ritual made one unclean in the sight of God.  According to Barclay, “[t]he man who ate with unclean hands was subject to the attacks of a demon called Shibta. To omit so to wash the hands was to become liable to poverty and destruction.”[2]

vv.9-13

In verse 9, Jesus sarcastically says, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your traditions.”  Jesus gave an example in verses 10 to 13.  One of the commandments is to honor your father and mother.  But by tradition, one could circumvent his duty to support his parents by declaring as “Corban” what he intended to give his parents.  Then when his father or mother in dire need comes to him for help, he can say, “I am sorry that I cannot help because nothing that I have is available for you because it is dedicated to God.”  And then the son could discharge his part of the matter by making a quite small symbolic payment to the Temple, and then keeping the rest for himself.[3] Through the tradition of the Corban, one had a readily-accessible method to spiritualize his/her selfish motivations.

vv.14-19

From Jesus’ strong condemnation of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, one can infer that he rejects the Pharisees’ opinion that unclean hands defile food.  He now goes much further by explicitly rejecting the proposition that contact with anything profane defiles a person.  Jesus does not differ with the Pharisees only over details such as washing hands; he rejects their whole approach to God’s law.  They are concerned about surface impurity and piety; Jesus is concerned about internal impurity that one cannot wash away by washing the hands.[4]

That one cannot be holy before God through ritualistic acts seems quite obvious and intuitive to us now; however, we must realize that we see through the lens which has been shaped by the full revelation of God that has come through Christ.  The years of tradition laid on top of other preceding traditions has stripped Israel’s worship of God and the concept of holiness of their ethical core and replaced it with ritualistic acts.  To the Jew, along with other peoples during those times, the essence of service to God (as toward any deity in shamanistic / pantheistic culture) was in ritual cleanliness, in obedience to the Sabbath laws and food laws.  That’s what set them apart.  One needs to be clear here that the obedience to those laws is not what Jesus is criticizing and rejecting here.  Jesus is rejecting the system which has made those acts themselves as an end in itself – the system which equates such ritualistic acts with holiness and cleanliness before God.

vv.20-23

“It is a truly terrible list which Jesus cites of the things that come from the human heart.  When we examine it a shudder surely passes over us.  Nonetheless it is a summons, not to a fastidious shrinking from such things, but to an honest self-examination of our own hearts.”[5]

vv.24-26

This passage contains difficulties and surprises that need to be seen in the context of Jesus’ movement toward a Gentile ministry as well as the socio-political context.  First, Jesus is found in a predominantly Gentile region when this incident happens.  Second, the woman is a Gentile pagan; not only that, she hails from a city that the Old Testament deemed to be a wealthy and godless oppressor of Israel (ref. Isa 23; Jer 47:4; Ezek 26-28; Joel 3:4; Amos 1:9; Zech 9:2).[6] Furthermore, there existed socio-economic tension between Tyre and Galilee.  “The city of Tyre was well stocked with produce from the hinterland of Galilee (see Acts 12:20), while those who grew the food frequently went hungry.  Economically, Tyre took break away from Galilee.  Galileans perceived Tyre politically as posing a permanent threat with expansionist policies since there were no natural boundaries to mark off the two regions.  The hostility between Tyrians and Jews is reflected in Josephus’ statement that the people from Tyre are ‘our bitterest enemies’.  This woman is, therefore, not just a Gentile but a member of a resented class of privileged foes.  It would be analogous to a rich Brahmin coming to a shelter run by Mother Teresa and insisting that she leave her untouchable charges to pray over his sick child.”[7]

Also, most Jews in the first century shared without question the prejudice that Gentiles defiled by touch.  “The humble request of this Gentile woman, therefore, creates dramatic tension.  Will Jesus be as gracious to this lady from Tyre as he was to the unclean outcasts within Israel?”[8]

v.27

Jesus’ reply to the woman can be somewhat surprising, although one might think that if she is indeed from the domineering high society of Tyre, Jesus’ provocative response is arguably not all that surprising.  Nevertheless, it is difficult to determine the tone with which Jesus spoke those words.  However, we do have some clues.

First, Jesus did not use the usual word for “dog” – he used a diminutive word which described, not the wild dogs that roamed the streets, but the little pet dogs of the house.  In Greek, diminutives are characteristically affectionate.  Jesus took the sting out of the word.

Second, we can see that Jesus did not shut the door.  “First, he said, let the children eat; but only first; there is meat left for the household pets.  True, Israel had the first offer of the gospel, but only the first; there were others still to come.”[9]

Also, along with v.29 which shows the gladness of Jesus to receive her reply, Matthew records that Jesus praised her faith afterwards (Matt 15:28), which tips us off to the possibility that Jesus’ words were not simply cold rejections, but a test to elicit greater faith and dependence from the woman.

Having said all that, however, we ought not to try to defang the provocative statement completely.  A dog is a dog, whether it is a pampered household pet or a street pest.  Even if said softly and tenderly, most would not understand the term “dog” as a term of honor.  However, Mark is apparently oblivious to the problem in the story that bothers us so much.  The reason that it bothers us is this: “We assume that Jesus is obligated to respond to every request and to heal everyone.”[10]

“We should not try to relieve Jesus’ supposed want of chivalry.  Jesus is deliberately scandalous – throwing stumbling blocks in people’s way.  He affronts the Pharisees by calling them hypocrites to their face and scoffing at their beloved tradition, and he insults this Gentile woman by hinting she is a dog.  One should allow the scandal to stand and emphasize that one must overcome the scandal before one can open the door for Jesus to help.”[11]

“No one likes being called hypocrites, an evil generation, brood of vipers, whitewashed tombs, foxes, or dogs.  Our pride kicks in and keeps us from ever asking for help again.  We will turn to gods of our own making who will not offend us, because we convince ourselves that we are special and truly worthy of God’s grace and help.”[12] We feel that God owes us to help; we have a hold on God, a ticket that we can flash before Him that will obligate him pay attention to us.  It is this false belief and our pride that takes offense at Jesus’ response, which prevents us from receiving God’s help and asking for mercy.

vv.28-30

The beauty of this woman’s faith is exemplified by her response to Jesus’ apparent rejection.  The woman accepts that she is unacceptable.  “Yet she does not cut herself off from the miraculous power of Jesus by thinking that she is too unworthy to receive anything at all.  She accepts his judgment and bows down as a beggar for grace.”[13]

vv.31-37

Jesus took the man aside away from the crowd.  He likely did this because he did wished to keep the deaf man from becoming a public spectacle.  For the deaf, it can be quite disorienting to be in a large crowd that is excited, since his disability is accentuated in the midst of such a crowd.  So Jesus takes him away from the crowd.  In this simple act, we can see Jesus’ most tender considerateness.

Why did Jesus use his spit to heal the man?  In those days people believed that spittle had a curative quality, and Jesus uses the means that was understandable to the deaf man.  Since the deaf man could not understand spoken language, Jesus uses another medium of communication.  By the deliberate action of putting his fingers into the man’s ears and spitting and touching the man’s tongue, there can be no doubt in the deaf man’s mind what Jesus’ intentions were.

“When it was completed the people declared that he had done all things well.  That is none other than the verdict of God upon his own creation in the very beginning.  When Jesus came, bringing healing to men’s bodies and salvation to their souls, he had begun the work of creation all over again.  In the beginning everything had been good; man’s sin had spoiled it all; and now Jesus was bringing back the beauty of God to the world which man’s sin had rendered ugly.”[14]


[1] Daily Bible Study Series: The Book of Mark, Barclay, William

[2] Daily Bible Study Series: The Book of Mark, Barclay, William

[3] Daily Bible Study Series: The Book of Mark, Barclay, William

[4] Garland, David.  The NIV Application Commentary: Mark, p.275

[5] Barclay, William.  The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Mark, p.175

[6] Garland, David.  The NIV Application Commentary: Mark, p.288

[7] Garland, David.  The NIV Application Commentary: Mark, p.293

[8] Garland, David.  The NIV Application Commentary: Mark, p.288

[9] Barclay, William.  The Daily Study Bible Series: the Gospel of Mark, p.179

[10] Garland, David.  The NIV Application Commentary: Mark, p.293

[11] Garland, David.  The NIV Application Commentary: Mark, p.293

[12] Garland, David.  The NIV Application Commentary: Mark, p.294

[13] Garland, David.  The NIV Application Commentary: Mark, p.294

[14] Barclay, William.  The Daily Study Bible Series: the Gospel of Mark, p.182

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